Are You Still a Climber if You Don’t Lead?

My girlfriend is taking a break from leading right now. Sport climbs, trad climbs, no leading. No sharp end for her, for a while.

When we met, our first times hanging out were multi-pitch trad climbs, with me leading all the pitches. She was a new, enthusiastic climber, and as we started to hit it off, I harbored some fantasies of swinging leads, even having her lead the hard pitches. We haven’t quite gotten there, and we might not ever get there. And that’s fine with me. I’m happy to have someone who even likes the same stuff I do, and likes hanging out with me a couple hundred feet off the ground on the weekends.

Over the past year, our climbing relationship had some emotional ups and downs — or, it might be more accurate to say, we were that couple you saw fighting over something stupid at the crag. Steph wanted to push her trad leading threshold higher, and I wanted to help her, and we didn’t know how to do it. By the end of last year, she was questioning whether or not she even liked climbing. At all. And I love climbing.

She ended the year telling people she was “taking a break from leading.” At some point, one of her friends introduced her to someone and said, “Steph’s a climber,” and Steph interjected, “No, no, I’m not, really.” When she got home that night, we talked, and she asked:

“If you don’t lead, are you still a climber?”

Well, that’s an interesting question. I told her that climbing means leading, for me. I feel like when I have a rope above me, I get lazy and make bad decisions. Toproping is bad practice for me. I’d rather have the heightened stakes of a lead fall, so I can really concentrate. It’s not that I climb hard routes — but I like to have the maximum experience when I go climbing: routefinding, technique, accountability, movement, and dealing with the fear of falling. The sharp end of the rope is one of the only places I literally think about nothing else, except climbing.

But it’s obviously not that way for everyone. Some climbers are on their way to learning to lead routes, some people never want to lead, and maybe some, like Steph, are just taking a break for a while. But unless you go to crags with walk-up top anchor access, it’s hard to go climbing with someone if neither one of you wants to lead any routes. I recently asked a friend if she was going to be organizing her annual sport climbing trip, where she and a handful of friends spend a weekend at a set of crags with no walk-up access, and she said, “I want to, but none of us lead.” Which is kind of a bummer, if you all like to climb. It’s almost like having 10 people who all want to play basketball, but no one owns a ball.

I suppose everyone’s answer is different, depending on what they get out of climbing. For sure, if you are a boulderer, you’re always on the sharp end. To me, the goal is some sort of competence that paves the way for adventure. I know that I can call a friend of similar climbing (leading) ability, and we can pick out a line of 4-10 pitches anywhere in the world, within our skill level, and we can have an adventure. And that’s what it’s all about for me: Discovering someplace new, in the mountains, and in myself and my friend when we get out there where there’s no safety net and no cell phone signal.

But I’m a pretty weak climber. Lots (maybe the majority?) of climbers love the gymnastic movements of hard climbs, overhanging sport routes, technical boulder problems, pushing their physical limits, racing against the pump clock, leaving the crag with arms that feel like spaghetti noodles. And lots of climbers who are in it for those reasons probably don’t give a shit whether or not they’re on the sharp end of the rope.

A couple weekends ago, Steph and I went climbing together for the first time in almost five months, along with a friend of mine. It was the first time we went anywhere with a rope and there were no expectations of her to do anything. She just tied into a top rope set up by myself or my friend, and climbed. After lowering off her first route of the day, she was beaming, saying,

“I love climbing!”

And that’s all I care about. I’ll lead all the hard pitches, or all the pitches.

There’s lots more writing like this from Brendan Leonard at www.semi-rad.com.

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